The demographics of declining college enrollment

Education_College Student

Despite a rise in high school graduation rates, college enrollment is dropping from its 2011 peak, leaving many small colleges scrambling.  Here in Virginia, enrollment has largely been steady, but two small colleges closed in the last two years, and others have sounded the alarm on declining enrollment or missed targeted growth.  Every struggling college certainly has its own history and unique problems.  But larger trends always pick off stragglers.  In Warren Buffet’s words, “when the tide goes out, you find out who’s been swimming naked.”  And the tide appears to be going out.  A rash of articles has addressed the subject, with some of the leading culprits being the improved economy and job prospects for those without degrees.

But the big factor that doesn’t seem to be well-understood is simple population math.  College attendance has climbed over the years to the point where an overwhelming majority of American young people will enroll in college of some kind at some point.  This makes college enrollment extremely sensitive to fluctuations in the number of young people available.  The generation currently in college or recently out of it is one of the largest this country has managed to produce.  It’s no wonder there was a spike in enrollment, recession or no, back in 2008-09 if one looks at the number of Americans who were just reaching 18-19 years of age.  Since then those numbers have fallen sharply and will continue to fall more slowly for the foreseeable future as the U.S. birth rate hovers below replacement (on a positive note, most of that decline is attributable to a precipitous decline in teen pregnancy).

Here is the United States’ population by age from 2010-2013.

All

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Virginia is getting older

Like many people, I’ve been inclined to explain Virginia’s decades of explosive population growth in terms of migration and the Federal government’s expansion in Northern Virginia.  While that’s certainly part of the equation, “natural increase” has actually driven most of the growth, just as it has across the country.  Natural increase simply means more people are born than die in a year.  Even in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, natural increase is the largest generator of population growth.  But “natural increase” does not mean that we are having lots and lots of babies.  In fact, it has much more to do with the fact that we had a lot of babies a while back and since then people started living a lot longer.

You hear, on this blog and elsewhere, about the “aging population,” but I wanted to show exactly what that means.  Here’s the one gif you need to see to understand population growth in Virginia:

1980

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The Line that Divides DC

No it’s not a party line.  It’s an almost perfectly straight line running north-south along 16th Street, passing through the White House, and then continuing along the Potomac River to the south.  It divides two very different sides of the DC area.

These graphs are a cross-section of the DC area that looks at how the city changes as you travel from the center to the periphery.  I’ve split the graphs into two sides based on the east-west dividing line.  You’ll notice the first one or two miles to the east are much like their western counterparts (this is essentially the area around Capitol Hill and the National Mall).  After that, the two sides diverge pretty dramatically.DCEW Continue reading

As more families choose cities, governments are returning to the drawing board

Urban areas import the young and export the old, the theory goes, or went. For decades, young people have come to Virginia’s urban areas to go to university or work, often moving out again when their children require more space or education, or when they retire. But, since the mid 2000s, a demographic change has slowed the conveyor belt of movement in and out of cities. More young families are staying in Virginia’s urban areas to raise their children and enroll them in local schools, fueling the strongest population growth many of Virginia’s urban areas have experienced since the 1950s.

Though many young couples in the past have started families while they lived in urban areas, a good number would move to suburban counties before enrolling their children in school. In urban school divisions such as Arlington County and Fredericksburg, fewer than 60 percent of children born in 1999 showed up in first grade in 2005. The large number of young families moving into suburban school divisions caused many more children to enroll in first grade in counties such as Spotsylvania and Chesterfield than were born there six years earlier.2005 Ratio

Source: Virginia Department of Education Fall Count, Virginia Department of Health Live Births, tabulated by the Weldon Cooper Center

Today, many parents are staying put in urban areas, thanks to stricter mortgage regulations that make it hard for buyers to get a loan, and a difficult labor market that makes it hard for anyone to be sure of a job. One-third as many homes were sold in 2012 as in 2005 in Virginia. During the same period, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows that the number of Virginia families with children who live in a rented  residence has increased 15 percent.

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Population Aging and Growing Dependency

In addition to producing total population projections for 2020, 2030, and 2040 for Virginia and its localities, we also produced projections of future population by age, sex, and race, and by age, sex, and ethnicity. Today, I want to highlight the age structure of projections for the state of Virginia, with specific attention to population aging.

Population aging is occurring worldwide, as improvements in living conditions and medical care lead people to live longer, healthier lives. Not only will larger numbers of individuals be reaching older ages (65 and older) than ever before, but a rising proportion of the population will be at older ages in the future. These population changes are anticipated to have wide-ranging impacts: families may face increased caretaker demands; new businesses and services may develop to serve this large population with new and changing needs; and, in the United States and other countries, population aging has long-term implications for the economy.

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We like you…but could you please stop robbing us :)

The recent debate and negotiations this week in Congress over student loans has me fuming.  The primary question is whether or not to increase interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans, loans that go to students from families that earn less than $70,000 a year.  Regardless of whether they agree to raise or maintain interest rates on Stafford loans, it could very well be the case that young people will still get burned.  Graduate students may have to start paying interest on their loans while they are still in school and the government will no longer cover the interest on subsidized loans during the six month transition after undergraduate students graduate.  These changes could cost young people an extra $20 billion dollars over the next decade added on to a cumulative student loan debt that has surpassed $1 trillion.  Student loan debt is one of those things that haunts you well after you graduate, and as a person who is still trying to pay off a small part of that $1 trillion, I can imagine how much tougher it will be for these new lower-income students throughout their lifetime.  So, I am a bit angry; not only because of what this means for student loans but how this contributes to a troubling pattern in today’s policy making that only seems to be getting worse.  I must ask:

How long must the old continue to eat the young?

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